Performing "Truth": Black Speech Acts

Article excerpt

Wai' a minit, wai' a minit. Hol' up! Speak one at a time. This is not The Jerry Springer Show. (Oprah Winfrey, The Oprah Winfrey Show [1998])

Let a Black sistah break it down fo' ya. (RuPaul, Foxy Lady [1996])

Introduction: Dialogic, Dialect, and "truth"

"Wha' choo mean, y'all ain't got no heat?!"

"How come y'all ain't ha' no heat?!" I inquired, invoking my best Black dialect, as a friend explained that his family had recently installed central heating. Previously, a wood stove had been the family's sole source of fire. As quaint as it seems, my urban sensibilities, and those of my other dinner companions, could not grasp the intentional immersion in Midwestern winters without the benefit of a modern heating system. We, university colleagues and children of the diaspora, laughed heartily at the honesty and wonder that the invocation of Black Speak conveyed. The questions were, of course, rhetorical. But the performance was unquestionable: Black speech acts.

Living in the two worlds that constitute the America detailed by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk has equipped me (and others) not only with dual consciousness (or, as Du Bois dubs the duality, "twoness") but also with multiple languages. Among the languages is a dialect that I title Black Speak. It is a language that resonates a "truth."

I posit that the form of "truth" asserted by the invocation of Black Speak is based in the sense of community evoked by and attributed to the cultural/communicative form. Black Speak communicates a "truth" by infusing its messages with the linguistic style that formulates and informs cultural identities and communities.

Americans of African descent share a unique relationship with Western culture. The experiences related to slavery, subjugation, and discrimination have blended to produce the duplicitous effect on the development of Black consciousness noted by Du Bois. The simultaneous inclusion in and exclusion from the mainstream places peoples of African descent at the precipice of American culture. This precarious position provides a distinctive vantage point from which to observe the mechanisms and machinations of culture. The history of the denial of freedom and discriminatory applications of rights and privileges cultivate a Black Speak (and a Black consciousness) that delves for a "truth" beneath the surface of standardized, legitimized mainstream culture. Such a "truth" resonates from the shared social identity and heritage that permeate and necessitate the construction of Black Speak, linking its interlocutors to the socially constructed and historically transmitted patterns of meaning that define culture (see Gee rtz).

Multiple experiences have constructed a combination of communal and private spaces in which Black Speak has become encoded by what Henry Louis Gates calls an authenticated sign of Blackness. These shared experiences imbue the conscious articulation of Black vernacular with "soulful" qualities which resonate as the message is transmitted from the orator to the receiver. The invocation of Black Speak evokes a "meta-discourse" of discemable significations, connotations, and denotations (see Gates) that transcends the oratory and signals "true" communication.

That is, Black Speak is invoked to communicate clearly and concisely a "truth" to another or others who have shared the cultural history and who are conversant in the vernacular form. The purposeful invocation of the dialect and manipulation of standardized English suggest that the orator is in command of all the languages involved. For those individuals whose daily demands require a reliance on "mainstream," standardized speech acts, the purposeful invocation of Black Speak can be a powerful statement about identity, community, connectedness to the counter/alternative culture, and the oration as well as the perception of a "truth. …